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Harnessing culture to cement society

A society’s normative ideas and values inform the discourse in every sphere of life, from the economy to culture. The hope with this piece is to contribute a perspective about how culture could be elevated by interrogating the premises for popular moral standards and practices.

State of the Art with Admire Kudita

Reading culture

One of the people who I follow on Twitter is South Africa’s deputy public protector, lawyer Kevin Sifiso Malunga. He follows me too. But that is not the point of the name drop. He happens to be one of those who appear to read widely if one judges by his Twitter feed and that is my kind of people (More about that later). One of the things I got from Malunga’s Twitter feed this week was a quote about Singapore. The tweet led me to an article in a Singaporean publication.

Quoted in the article is the Culture, Community and Youth minister of that country, Grace Fu. It made interesting reading because she mentions a few things that got me thinking. Here are a few excerpts in front of which I have placed my understanding of the values suggested:

“If I am able to make Singaporeans feel more strongly and better about themselves as a people and about Singapore as a country, then I would have succeeded as a minister.” (National pride.)

“If I have an idea of what to do, how about rallying my friends to participate in it? If I think that more can be done to educate cyclists on road etiquette, how about I lead a cyclist group to do something about it?” she said. (Personal responsibility and initiative as opposed to blame shifting).

“This requires Singaporeans to move beyond seeing government as the leader, and themselves as the followers,” Fu said. (Small government)

Traditional fault lines between racial groups and religious communities still exist, she said. But new divides have emerged in today’s society, including those between the rich and the poor, foreigners and locals, and conservatives and liberals. (Inclusivity and equity).

“These are divides that we are watching quite carefully. Any of these can cause tensions in society.” (Vigilance).
“It is not going to be something to be done over five years. It took us 50 years to reach where we are today.” (Endurance).

What captured my fancy and what I have adopted as a personal quest is to initiate a dialogue about values and principles that can help our society move forward. The current fixation with a “new Zimbabwe” dispensation is to my mind anchored on a new political arrangement.

But few are coming out clearly to articulate the undergirding philosophy for this new beast! Until we have that discussion and focus on exactly what it is that must found our society post-Mugabe, then we may as well grope around in the dark.

The Singaporean culture minister has correctly assessed her brief to be much broader than a government ministry. In fact, she correctly crystallised that her job is what those in marketing have referred to as “branding”.

What a country stands for and what it promises to both its citizens and foreigners. But this, however, is an all pervasive responsibility for a nation’s citizenry, with leaders needing to be particularly seized with the matter. I wonder if Kazembe Kazembe, Zimbabwe’s Culture minister, reads my column. It would be a pity if he does not buy this newspaper! I wonder if, indeed, he grasps this thinking about his portfolio.

Brand America

Oprah Winfrey has United States media circles abuzz with talk of a possible run at the presidency in 2020. Winfrey is a media juggernaut who was recently awarded the Cecil B DeMille award at Hollywood film industry’s Golden Globes award ceremonies and made a speech that has buoyed her stock.

Political pundits are toying with the idea of an “Oprah Winfrey presidential run”. Several reputable media publications such as New York Times and notable journalists such as Christian Amanpour of CNN have in the last few days held interviews with Hollywood types such as Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.

It used to be the fact that politicans needed media moguls and billionaires to launch their careers. Now the moguls and businessmen seem to have decided to run themselves. US President Donald Trump used to dole out cheques to politicians with begging bowls for their campaigns.

The incredulous

If Winfrey did decide to run, she would have to battle it out with Trump. The idea of television reality star and television network boss Winfrey running for US presidency is truly intriguing on the face of it. But Winfrey is actually probably better placed than most candidates ever will be.

Close to 25 years of covering US culture may have equipped her with the social tools to do a credible job of it. She is actually a broadcast journalist by training and profession, who began her career in Chicago as a correspondent on a programme called AM Chicago. I would not underestimate her potential.

Here is a quote from a Hollywood reporter: “If a presidential election were held today, Oprah Winfrey would receive 100% of the vote from the group of TV critics with whom I watched the Golden Globes. She’d get around 98% of the presidential vote from my Twitter feed. ‘

Art imitating life

Reading the article made me marvel at America as a country. Art imitates life so much that movies are made about movie stars! Moreover, some movies appear to prefigure ideas and technological innovations that will impact society. Examples are the gadgets that movie characters such as James Bond use in the action flick franchise.

It is in Bond movies that I first grasped the possibility of mobile phones as wrist watches. It is on television series such as Knight Rider that I saw a “talking and self driving” car. Are these not common now?

My point is this: Hollywood has for the longest time colluded with US authorities to “brand” America since the days of Walt Disney and his wartime movies (Second World War) in support of the Allied forces. Consider movies such as Rambo depicting US military activities in Afghanistan during the Cold War era.

Hollywood calling

Hollywood will probably call its debt to the American establishment through a Winfrey candidacy. They have cumulatively contributed to what America is today as a nation.For better or for worse; Hollywood has anticipated and captured the nation’s essence.

The motion picture content from Hollywood tends to be aspirational as well as reflective of what society and the nation stands for. To this extent, the Trump presidency is a creature of the media. His success was somewhat based on his deftness at playing the media like a fiddle. He understood more than others that television subsists on ratings.

In turn, ratings are powered by colourful, influential and controversial personalities such as Trump and Trump mesmerised them. Personally, I knew Trump would win because he is one that the media loves to hate.

He knew he had nothing to lose. He has his billions from his family real estate business to fall back on. America loves anti-heroes. I am quite sure that the power trip he is having is not going to be that easy to get off, come 2020.

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